4.5.5 Email and computer mediated communication

Email is the most popular of the new communications technologies (Baron, 1998, p. 134), and, along with computer mediated communication (CMC) more generally, is of great interest to linguists. Baron traces the history of email back to the development of the telegraph in 1838 and the telephone in 1876, followed by telex and fax. She shows how the limitations and capabilities of technology have a clear influence on the forms of language we use when communicating with them – the first email messages were brief because they had to fit on a single screen. Baron also notes that a period of maturation is necessary with any new means of communication, for users to familiarise themselves and become more conversational in style (early telephone users tended to read their messages quite formally, as if delivering a speech). This is currently taking place with CMC, as linguistic and iconic conventions become established and the medium ‘settles down’ into its own set of norms and rules (‘netiquette’).

A current issue in language research is the place CMC occupies on the continuum between speech and writing. Table 6 summarises some of the main differences; as you read the table, think about aspects of your own email communication.

Table 6 Differences between speech and writing

Speech Writing
1 Time-bound, dynamic, transient. Both participants usually present; speaker has a particular addressee in mind. 1 Space-bound, static, permanent. Writer usually distant from reader, and often does not know addressee.
2 Spontaneous and fast. Sentence boundaries often unclear, constructions looser, repetition occurs. 2 Time-lag occurs between production and reception. Organisation and expression more careful.
3 Facial expression and gestures used to aid meaning. Deictic expressions referring directly to the situation are often used (e.g. that one, in here, right now). 3 Participants cannot rely on context to aid meaning; no immediate feedback. Deictic expressions often avoided.
4 Contractions (isn’t, he’s) common. Sentence construction lengthy and complex. Use of nonsense, obscenity and slang may occur. 4 Multiple instances of subordination in same sentence; elaborately balanced syntactic patterns. Use of certain words never spoken (e.g. long names for chemical compounds).
5 Speech suited to social or ‘phatic’ functions, such as passing the time of day. Good for expressing social relationships, personal opinions. 5 Writing suited to recording of facts and communication of ideas. Written records easy to keep; good for tabulation and so on.
6 Speech can be rethought and qualified, but errors cannot be withdrawn. Interruptions and overlapping are normal. 6 Errors can be eliminated by redrafting. Interruptions are invisible in the final product.
7 Unique features include the nuances of intonation, contrasts of loudness, tempo, rhythm, pause, tones of voice. 7 Unique features include pages, lines, capitalisation, spatial organisation and aspects of punctuation. Some genres of writing (e.g. timetables, graphs) can only be assimilated visually.
Source: adapted from Crystal, 2001, pp.26-8

Activity 10 Language in emails and CMC

Timing: Allow up to 2 hours

Using some of the emails you have sent or received, consider the following questions:

  1. How many of the features in Table 6 can you identify?
  2. How easy is it to place your own CMC on a continuum between ‘speech-like’ and ‘writing-like’ language?
  3. How do contextual factors (situation, social relationships, level of formality) affect the language used?

In many ways CMC is more ‘speech-like’, with its immediacy, and its tendency to informal style, abbreviations and contractions. In other ways, however, CMC is more like writing. It can be made more formal, it has permanence, it can be reflected upon and returned to. It can have similar status to other written texts, and be used as evidence in legal cases and industrial tribunals. The absence of gesture and facial expression in CMC, and often lack of personal knowledge of the addressee, makes it potentially difficult to gauge others’ reactions. People frequently use emoticons in CMC to disambiguate the meanings of their messages – such as :-( to convey frowning, or ‘-) for winking.

Mercer (2000) looks at some further aspects of computer mediated communication. He considers how the concept of ‘community’ has shifted from traditional groups of people living and working together, to much more disparate collections of people who have shared interests but who may never meet. In practice we are all members of multiple communities, of course, and communications technologies play a vital role in creating and maintaining such groupings. Mercer describes a group, Phish.net, who form a community of music fans on the internet. There are millions of such groups, each with their own discourse, acronyms and jargon which requires newcomers to become acculturated. Mercer goes on to describe some linguistic aspects of computer mediated communication (CMC) in synchronous and asynchronous conferencing, and email.

Technological developments, then, are sometimes linked in small but significant ways with changes in language forms themselves, because they restrict some means of communicating, or encourage others. We now move on to look further at information technology and education and the new literacy needs it is engendering for teachers and learners.

4.5.4 Text messaging

4.6 Information technology, literacy and education